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'Friends' target prison violence

The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Correctional Training Center "has a lot of under-25s," Mark Vernarelli e-mailed me this week, "and they historically are more prone to violence, gang association, etc."

Vernarelli is the director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He wrote to tell me about a mentoring program at MCTC called "Friends of a Friend," which had its first graduation ceremony Wednesday night.

But Vernarelli didn't tell me how many make up "a lot." Is it more than a mess but slightly less than a slew or a boodle? For the 11 mentors and 10 mentees in the program, it probably doesn't matter; they're determined to ratchet down the violence at MCTC, and they're in it for the long haul.

The program works like this: For six months, mentors train their mentees in conflict resolution and ways to avoid violence, crucial skills in the tinderbox of gang activity that we better know as Maryland's prisons. The men meet in three-hour sessions on Wednesday nights for six months. The mentees can't miss more than two sessions; infractions disqualify them from the program. And they must meet with their mentors regularly and might have to complete reading and writing assignments.

So there I was three nights ago, in the MCTC chapel listening to Dana Briscoe and Ramon Valentine rave about the program.

"We got guys kicking in our doors to get in the program," said Valentine, 41.

"It's one of the most progressive groups in here," added Briscoe, 26. "You can see it."

It was at this point that my journalistic venture hit a snag. Barbara Allen, whose thankless job it is to handle us pesky journalists for MCTC, walked up to me and said I had been approved to talk to only two inmates - one mentor and one mentee. And Briscoe and Valentine weren't either of them.

"You can talk to Troy Rogers and Brian Blackston," Allen said, pointing out each man to me.

I sympathize with the folks at the MCTC and throughout the DPSCS. I know the tiger they're riding in trying to keep some semblance of order in Maryland's prisons. The restrictions were imposed, I'm sure, because of security concerns. But as I sympathize with their plight, I hope folks at the MCTC and DPSCS sympathize with mine. We journalists have this thing about prior restraint. To be brief: We don't like it. Tends to make for poor journalism.

I talked about it with Marshall "Eddie" Conway, a mentor who was one of the inmates who helped start Friends of a Friend. Would Briscoe and Valentine be in any danger if I used their names in my column?

"We're already in danger," Conway said, just by being in the program.

Conway made similar remarks earlier during the graduation ceremony, where he was one of the speakers.

"The mentors put themselves at risk," Conway said. "We walk a real fine line."

Oh, indeed they do, especially the older inmates like Conway. A little over 38 years ago, Conway was a member of the Black Panther Party when he was convicted of murdering one Baltimore police officer and wounding another. Conway's always professed his innocence, but now is not the time to rehash the "Eddie Conway is guilty vs. the Eddie Conway is not guilty" debate.

Conway's in his early 60s. Can you imagine the chances he takes by even approaching an inmate who's under 25 with testosterone surging throughout his body and who may have homicide on his mind?

So it is with apologies to Allen and the folks at the MCTC that I include quotes from Briscoe and Valentine. But to show I ain't completely a bad guy, I'll include some from Rogers and Blackston as well.

Rogers, 33, learned about the program through Briscoe, who's his mentor. (I don't know why folks at the MCTC couldn't see why it would be a better story to get quotes from a "mentee" and his mentor, but maybe now they have a better appreciation of how this journalism thing works.)

"I learned a lot of social skills," Rogers said. "Dealing with conflict. [The program] opened my eyes up to a whole new world for me. I had a nasty attitude problem."

Blackston is 38. He said he and others decided to start the program after seeing how younger inmates were "running wild" through the prison. The biggest challenge the mentors face, Blackston said, is the skepticism of younger inmates who ask them, "Why should I listen to you when you're an inmate just like I am?"

Because Blackston, Conway and the other mentors in the program aren't "just like" younger inmates. They're older, wiser and on a mission to stop the violence at a government facility.

Quite the pity we can't get them in Baltimore's public schools.


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